The Homeless

What could help Sacramento reduce homelessness? Here’s what’s being done elsewhere

Learn more about the site of a potential Cal Expo homeless shelter

Sacramento city officials are eyeing a Cal Expo parking lot at the southeast end of Ethan Way as a potential site for a 100-bed Sprung tent homeless shelter.
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Sacramento city officials are eyeing a Cal Expo parking lot at the southeast end of Ethan Way as a potential site for a 100-bed Sprung tent homeless shelter.

For more than a month, Sacramento City Council members have considered Mayor Darrell Steinberg’s proposal to spend a whopping $40.5 million, including $15.7 million in city money, on 781 new shelter beds.

Most of the shelters would be modeled after the city’s 100-bed Railroad Drive shelter, which allows people to bring their pets, partners and possessions, and helps them find housing. In its first 14 months, 147 people got into permanent housing after leaving the shelter, while 55 went to temporary housing, mostly in other shelters.

It’s a significant piece of a larger strategy the city and county are deploying to address homelessness, which officials hope will result in communities across the country looking at Sacramento as a model on how to drastically reduce homelessness before it grows out of hand.

But council members Larry Carr, Angelique Ashby and Allen Warren weren’t sold on the mayor’s proposal. They’re concerned that it’s too expensive and the number of people getting permanent housing is too low. They also worry about how the city would find the roughly $18 million per year it would need to keep the shelters running after two years. They have asked city staff to provide other options.

In the meantime, we asked homeless experts what other cities across the country are doing.

Hundreds of jobs

A growing Atlanta-based company has launched a program in Atlanta, Philadelphia and Nashville that has provided jobs to hundreds of homeless people.

First Step Staffing purchases staffing agencies in those cities, then as employees naturally leave jobs, the company fills those vacancies with homeless people, said Philip Mangano, former homelessness czar for Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

“(Employment) is the one thing missing in the lives of lots of homeless people,” Mangano said. “The government isn’t going to be able to pay the rent for every single homeless person for the rest of their lives. The idea of homeless people getting jobs means they can pay their rent.”

The jobs could be short-term, like packaging food for six months or cleaning a stadium 80 nights a year, or more long-term positions people could stay in for years, Mangano said.

In Atlanta, the company gained control of about 1,200 jobs. After six months, homeless people were working about 600 of those jobs, Mangano said.

Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties are also close to finalizing an agreement with the company, Mangano said.

Under those agreements, about 1,500 jobs in LA and about 1,200 jobs in San Bernardino would be under the company’s control, Mangano said. After six months, homeless people will be working about half those jobs, and after a year, homeless people will be working nearly all of them, Mangano said.

The two Southern California counties will together pay about $4 million to help get the program started, Mangano said.

More frequent counts

On the nights of Jan. 30 and 31, volunteers spanned Sacramento County to count homeless people, as required by the federal government. When it comes out in June, the survey number will help organizations that serve the homeless, and can determine how much the area receives in state funding.

But the count is only conducted every two years, and it likely misses a lot of homeless people.

In Sacramento – where nonprofits and government officials routinely roll out new programs – the most-recent number available is from a count conducted in January 2017. That count found more than 3,600 homeless people countywide, 30 percent more than in January 2015.

“The Point In Time count is one of the most unscientific activities that determines policies ever derived by the federal government,” Mangano said.

To remedy that, Seminole County in Florida is getting ready to start counting homeless much more frequently – every two weeks.

The frequent count will give officials the opportunity to see whether new programs are working, in real time.

“The idea will be to understand trends as they occur, rather than waiting for a two-year window,” Mangano said.

The county will provide numbers from the shelters and programs, while the Seminole County Sheriff’s Department will provide numbers of people living outside, Mangano said.

San Bernardino County is replicating the approach through a partnership with acclaimed mapping and analytics company ESRI, Mangano said.

“It’s an important advancement away from the unscientific (PIT count) toward reliable data and research,” Mangano said.

Worker dorms

The City of Houston is working with Harmony House, a nonprofit, to renovate and expand what’s called a “worker dorm.” The residential facilities provides low-barrier, affordable housing, but not for free.

People can pay by the night, week or month for a bunk bed with communal bathrooms, said Marc Eichenbaum, a special assistant to the Houston mayor on homelessness.

The facilities provide housing far cheaper than market rate and allows people to maintain a community.

“Some people don’t like having their own apartment because it’s isolating socially and this isn’t,” said Nan Roman, president and CEO of the Washington D.C-based National Alliance To End Homelessness.

The city could fund the construction, but does not plan to fund operations, Eichenbaum said. The city is also exploring a model called “micro units,” which are similar but offer more privacy, Eichenbaum said.

“The idea here is to develop a model that does not require substantial government funding to sustain its services,” Eichenbaum said.

Sacramento Bee photographers found a few people willing to tell us why they are homeless.

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Theresa Clift covers Sacramento City Hall. Before joining The Bee in 2018, she worked as a local government reporter for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, the Daily Press in Virginia and the Wausau Daily Herald in Wisconsin. She grew up in Michigan and graduated from Central Michigan University.